High-Tech Problem Solvers

Ford built a high-speed bug launcher to test autonomous technology

Ford engineers have thought of a sloppy but ingenious way to test autonomous driving development technology.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Thwack! That distinctive sound of a bug hitting the windshield is something drivers are all too familiar with. While the smear of a bug may impact a driver's visibility for a moment, the effect it could have on an autonomous driving sensor could result in a catastrophic system failure. That's something Venky Krishnan, autonomous vehicle systems core supervisor, Ford Motor Company has to spend time thinking about.

In a new post on Medium, Krishnan describes the extensive efforts Ford is putting into keeping those sensors clean. "We've sprayed dirt and dust onto our self-driving vehicle sensors. We've showered LiDAR sensors with water to simulate rainfall. We created our own synthetic bird droppings and smeared it on camera lenses," he shared.

Ford Bug Launcher Ford's autonomous driving technology prototypes include a collection of cameras, LiDAR and radar that needs to be kept clean.Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

But that's not all. Ford enlisted the help of zoologist Mark Hostetler to help them discern which bugs are most likely to make contact with the sensors and how often those interactions happen.

The automaker even developed a bug launcher that allows them to shoot insects at vehicle sensors at high speeds, simulating the way they impact vehicles in the real world.

Ford Bug Cannon GIF Ford has developed a cannon that shoots bugs onto its autonomous vehicle sensors to test how they operate under less than ideal conditions.GIF courtesy of Ford Motor Company

While the solutions are complex (the Ford team has already submitted over 50 patents worth of possible solutions to the issue), the issue may be best remedied by keeping autonomous vehicles from hitting bugs in the first place, according to Krishnan.

A new version of the system is now testing on Ford's third-generation self-driving test vehicle fleet in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Miami-Dade County and Washington, D.C. where the types of bugs and environments resulting in splatter vary greatly.

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The 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness is one of the Hyundai Santa Cruz's biggest rivals..

Photo courtesy of Subaru of America Inc.

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz faces stiff competition from many vehicles that are already on the market and a few that are coming down the road. Part of figuring out what its biggest competition is, is figuring out exactly what type of vehicle it is.

Once you've done that, the deciphering gets a bit easier, but it isn't apple to apples. There's really no truck quite like it on the market today.

Subaru Outback

2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness: Exterior trail driving Photo courtesy of Subaru of America Inc.

The utility of the rear space afforded by a wagon like the Subaru Outback isn't anything to sniff at. Make the cargo area a bed and you'll see why nostalgia plays long and hard for the Subaru Baja. The Outback and the Santa Cruz share many similar technologies, including all-wheel drive, but the Outback has something the Santa Cruz does not, a passionate built-in fan base.

Ford Bronco Sport

2021 Ford Bronco Sport rooftop tent Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Getting to the trailhead, then taking your car with you is something that the Ford Bronco Sport excels at. The surprisingly capable compact SUV delivers the capability adventurers are looking for, innovations overlanders love, and smooth ride over rough pavement.

Nissan Pathfinder

2022 Nissan Pathfinder Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

The freshly redesigned Nissan Pathfinder was meant to be more rugged. It also has three rows of seating (to the Santa Cruz's two) and seats eight, something you usually only find in full-size SUVs. Nissan has changed out the CVT for a nine-speed automatic transmission in this new generation, upping the appeal of the already-popular midsize family hauler.

Honda Ridgeline

2021 Honda Ridgeline Photo courtesy of American Honda Motor Co., Inc

The Honda Ridgeline shares most of its interior with the Pilot but has unique tech like an in-bed speaker system. It's trunk was no doubt an inspiration for Hyundai designers. What makes the Honda so sellable is its available all-wheel drive and overall comfort - two things that the Santa Cruz has as well.

Subaru Crosstrek

2021 Subaru Crosstrek Photo courtesy of Subaru of America Inc.

With its two engine options, standard all-wheel drive, and gobs of cargo space, the Subaru Crosstrek is primed for use in settings urban, suburban, and beyond. It's easily modified for more rugged endeavors with popular enhancements including a lift, knobby tires, a roof rack, and a brush guard. Subaru doesn't make a Wilderness version of the Crosstrek yet, but it's safe to assume that one is coming.

Ford Maverick

What is the Ford Maverick? Well, officially we're still in wait-and-see mode, but there's one thing for sure, Ford views the Santa Cruz as Maverick competition if for no other reason than it's a compact pickup truck.

While these five vehicles are some of the most obvious competitors, a solid list of aftermarket accessories could easily make the Santa Cruz even more competitive.

Hyundai has let it be known that they'd be into developing a more rugged version of the Santa Cruz if demand is there. What could that include? Take a look at what is on the Subaru Outback Wilderness for a good example of what upgraded off-road capability could look like. There's also some chatter about making an "N" version of the truck.

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The 2022 Ford F-150 will be able to come with BlueCruise hands-free driving technology.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company
It's official. The Ford F-150 and Mustang Mach-E will be the first vehicles in the company's lineup to receive the new BlueCruise hands-free driving technology.

Blue Oval's engineers traveled over 500,000 miles during technology development testing and fine-tuning the technology on a journey across the United States and Canada. That culminated with what Ford internals called the "Mother of All Road Trips", a 110,000-mile trek through 37 states and five Canadian provinces.

"There are highway intricacies and driving conditions that you simply cannot replicate in a lab," said Hau Thai-Tang, Ford chief product platform and operations officer. "Sending these vehicles out for real-world driving experience is just one of many ways we ensured that BlueCruise technology offers confidence and convenience for drivers all across the continent."

2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E

The Mustang Mach-E will be one of the first electric vehicles to feature hands-free driving tech in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Technology testing provided real work validation of earlier laboratory testing including functionalities that scan the road for road signage, exit ramps, traffic patterns, and weather.

"I drive long-distance quite often, whether out to Boston or down to Florida to visit family or friends, and usually I mentally tire out on drives that far," said Alexandra Taylor, BlueCruise feature development engineer, who logged more than 3,000 miles in an F-150 on the trek. "The one thing that became clear is that, when using BlueCruise, long drives aren't nearly as mentally taxing to me."

Back at the Ford lab, driver-assist technology supervisor Justin Teems monitored the progress of the entire fleet, gathering data that will help shape the BlueCruise driving experience now and in the future.

"It was like mission control," Teems said. "We really wanted to push BlueCruise to its limits. Every state builds roads a little differently. When you include factors like lane line degradation, weather and construction, building a hands-free driving system becomes extremely complex. Those complexities are why Ford has the best team of engineers in the world working on it."

BlueCruise builds on the advanced camera and radar-sensing technologies that are available with adaptive cruise control with stop and go, lane centering, and traffic sign recognition, which are part of the Ford Co-Pilot360 suite of technology.

A new lane centering mode acts just as one would guess it does by its name,. This technology is used in BlueCxuise, but not exclusive to it. Lane centering tech requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all time.

The new Ford advanced driver assist system allows a driver to operate their vehicle truly hands free on prequalified sections of divided highways called Hands-Free Blue Zones. This is similar to the types of roadways that General Motors’ Super Cruise operates on.

As with Super Cruise, a driver-facing camera watches eye gaze and head position making sure that the driver keeps their focus on the road.

Currently, more than 100,000 miles of highways across North America are dedicated Hands-Free Blue Zones in the Ford GPS mapping system. BlueCruise uses blue lighting on the digital instrument cluster to indicate when the vehicle is in a hands-free zone.

Ford Blue Zones map

Ford's BlueCruise technology works in areas called "Blue Zones". Here they are shown on a map.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Company

BlueCruise is an SAE Level 2 driver-assist technology, similar to Tesla Autopilot but with the advantage of offering a true hands-free driving experience while in Hands-Free Mode that does not require a driver's hands to stay in contact with the steering wheel, unless prompted by vehicle alerts.

Ford is quick to point out that BlueCruise is color blindness friendly, using text and blue lighting cues to communicate with drivers rather than the red and green colors that are utilized by Super Cruise and Tesla's Autopilot.

Later this year, properly equipped versions of the Ford F-150 and Mustang Mach-E will receive over-the-air BlueCruise technology updates. New features and capabilities will be added similarly in the coming years.

Ford expects to roll out the tech to addition models from 2021.

2021 F-150 and 2021 Mustang Mach-E customers will be able to purchase BlueCruise software – including a three-year service period – for $600 in the second half of 2021, when it's ready to launch. Hardware pricing varies by vehicle.

For F-150, BlueCruise is available as a part of the Ford Co-Pilot 360 Active 2.0 package for a total of $1,595 – $600 for the software and $995 for the hardware. The Ford Co-Pilot 360 Active 2.0 package is standard on F-150 Limited and available as an option on Lariat, King Ranch and Platinum models.

For Mustang Mach-E, BlueCruise comes standard on CA Route 1, Premium and First Edition variants. It's an available package on the Select trim for $3,200 – $ 600 for the software and $2,600 for the rest of the package – as part of the larger Comfort and Technology package, which includes features such as a 360-degree camera, heated front seats and heated steering wheel

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